Review: ‘The Book of Liz’ at Custommade Theatre (***)

(Charles Kruger)

(***)

This reviewer is a voting associate member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)
This reviewer is a voting associate member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)

(“The Book of Liz” plays at the Gough Street Playhouse July 12 through August 2nd, 2014.)

Make fun of religion, the Amish, faith, immigrants and Alcoholics Anonymous, throw in Mr. Peanut, a game-changing and utterly disgusting gag about bodily fluids, a “plot” that’s not and present it all with the wit of the Sedaris “Talent Family” (siblings David and Amy) and you have a recipe for side splitting laughter or unspeakable offense, depending on the state of your mind, politics and the spiritual condition of your funny bone. If your particular funny bone does not enjoy seeing sacred cows ground into meatloaf, you had better stay away from this one.

On the other hand, if you are ready to follow a joke where laughter too often fears to tread, skip down to the Gough Street Playhouse and party hearty with Sister Elizabeth Donderstock, Reverend Tollhouse, Brother Hesikiah and what appears be a cast of thousands but is actually only four actors having a ball.

Brother Nathaniel (Stefin C0llins), Sister Elizabeth (AJ Davenport) and the Reverend Tollhouse (Justin Gillman). Photo Credit: Jay Yamada.
Brother Nathaniel (Stefin C0llins), Sister Elizabeth (AJ Davenport) and the Reverend Tollhouse (Justin Gillman). Photo Credit: Jay Yamada.

These are very good actors, letting their hair down (way down) with material that sometimes makes The Three Stooges look like Oscar Wilde. At other times, of course, the famed Sedaris wit appears to startle and delight, as when Sister Elizabeth defends a worldly friend who makes deliveries to the religious community.

Mr. Peanut (a disguised AJ Davenport) attacks the cockney Lithuanian (Stefin Collins).
Mr. Peanut (a disguised AJ Davenport) attacks the cockney Lithuanian (Stefin Collins).

Trying to keep her friend employed, she observes to the judgmental Reverend Tollhouse that “She has to support 12 Dobermans….” Before the uneasy laughter has a chance to die down, Tollhouse responds with judgment dripping from his lips and eyebrows like melting candle wax: “By different fathers, I presume….”

The story involves Sister Elizabeth’s leaving the religious community where she feels unappreciated, and finding herself working as a server at a pilgrim-themed tourist trap staffed by what can only be characterized as 12-step zombies. She finds this job after doing time as a road side advertisement in a Mr. Peanut costume. “It’s so comfortable,” she says obliviously.

The convolutions of the plot are basically just an excuse for silly performances by Justin Gillman, AJ Davenport, Stefin Collins and Teri Whipple. Gillman’s Reverend Tollhouse will make you want to climb on the stage and strangle him; and his sappy AA sponsor cum restaurant manager may inspire even worse instincts. AJ Davenport is strangely sympathetic as the guileless Sister Elizabeth and quite funny in a brief drag appearance as Brother Hesikiah. (This is Davenport’s second drag appearance of the theatrical season: is this a new career plan?) Stefin Collins sports a false beard as flamboyantly as anybody and gamely plays a variety of characters. He is a hoot and a half as Brother Nathaniel Brightbee, an unlikely sex symbol for the sincere but nasty Sister Constance Butterworth, portrayed with prim precision by Teri Whipple.

It’s all good fun.

For further information, click here.

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“The Book of Liz” by David and Amy Sedaris, produced by Custommade Theatre Company. Director: James Nelson. Lights & Scenic Design: Maxx Kurzunski. Costume Design: Scarlett Kellum. Music: Liz Ryder. 

Reverend Tollhouse/Visil/Duncan  Trask: Justin Gillman. Sister Elizabeth Donderstock, Brother Hesikiah: AJ Davenport. Brother Nathaniel Brightbee, Yvonne, Donny Polk, Rudy Bruton: Stefin Collins. Teri Whipple: Sister Constance Butterworth, Oxana, Cecily Cole, Sophisticated Visitor, Doctor Barb Ginley, Ms. Yolanda Foxley.

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